The Wind Blowing through Time: Contemporary Artist of Korea, Kang, Yo-Bae  

Written by Han, Gil-sun, Curator of the Jeju Museum of Art

“There are friends and a ‘prophetic bird’ in a hut where my wandering ends. Among them, one is ‘I’ and another one is ‘God,’ and the other friend is unfamiliar. I begin to talk stories to my friends. To tell them this awesome experience and elicit their experiences, and finally to clearly identify ‘I’ who exists as a fate, in the one world together with all my friends…… And, I listen to the prophetic songs sung by the bird.”  

In 1976, Kang, Yo-Bae had his first solo exhibition in a teashop, Daehodabang, near Gwandeokjeong pavilion in Jeju City. It was during his ordinary leave from the period of military service. In his presumably first writing, he seemed to foresee what kind of life he was going to live. Thereafter, he has consistently expressed his stance that he will uphold ‘life’ itself and the ‘resonance of coexistence’ as the highest values, beyond reality or ideology, in his contribution essays, notes for exhibitions, and interview reports.

Life is a process of knowing about subjects, e.g., value, god, human beings, and nature. If so, where are we now and where are we heading? We say that the modern society of the 21st century is the era of communication and empathy. To meet the trend of the times, the domain of art has also responded with various efforts resulting in accumulation of outstanding outcomes. Concurrently, it is not too difficult to find out that artists are leading the culture of the time. Kang, Yo-Bae is regarded as one of the artists who lead the trend in Korean fine art circles.

Kang, Yo-Bae, who was born in 1952, is a first generation artist of Minjung (people’s) art, which rose in 1980 as a socio-political art movement. While he was active as a member of an art coterie, <Reality and Utterance>, for a decade in the 1980s, he unfolded a new horizon with realism painting and by introducing history as a theme of art. In his exhibition, “Camellias Fall” in 1992, ‘Jeju people’s uprising’ is introduced with a historical perception. It was the momentum that set the coordinates for his journey as an artist. Meanwhile, he is also known widely as a painter who portrays landscape imbued with emotions using nature and history as themes. Using his own unique technique, Kang portrays nature of a volcanic island, Jeju, and the history of the ancestors’ hard life. Recognized for his keen artistic spirit and the originality of his technique, the 2015 Lee Jung-Seop Award was granted to him.

It is not easy to put together and summarize one’s life stories. It is even more difficult if the value of the subject person is highly recognized in any field. However, the process of getting to know the life and thought of such a renowned person and sharing what we learned with the world, will become important coordinates to communicate with the world. The exhibition, “Contemporary Artist of Korea, Kang, Yo-Bae: The Wind Blowing through Time,” is a large scale exhibition with an invited artist. We gathered and put together Kang’s study paintings from his early days and his recent work in one place. It will be an opportunity to look into Kang’s life and artistic spirit from various angles, and to review the current address and future direction of contemporary art in Korea. This exhibition is significantly meaningful as Kang’s second solo exhibition on Jeju since his first exhibition forty years ago in 1976.

Kang, Yo-Bae was born in 1952, when the April 3 Jeju uprising was getting to the final stage, in Samyang-dong, Jeju City. His parents did not have much to offer to their children on this humble island. But they recognized their young son’s talent. As the most reliable sponsors, his parents fully supported their gifted son to develop his full potential. Such an atmosphere at home became the foundation for Kang, Yo-Bae to grow freely and have a free spirit through entire his life.

We can feel the emanating free energy from his paintings from elementary school days. The “Self-portrait” and “Rohdea” were painted in 1961 and 1962 respectively. He was a third- and fourth-grader at that time. From the facial expression, the way he painted the stems, treating the shadow, and clear separation of the themes in the two paintings, we can see that he focused on exact portrayal of the objects. As it is shown in “A Day of Snowfall in Large Flakes (1963),” “Thinking about Soccer (1963), and “Birds, a Cat and Puppy (1964), we can see that he changed how he looks at and thinks about the world as he moved to a higher grade. His techniques were also changed. Kang fostered his own world of self-production even from the childhood. He was never satisfied with “mimicking.” His pursuit for his own world has continued until today and become a buttress of the framework for his artistic creation.

His passion for fine art never stopped in his middle and high school days. After graduating from high school, he went to Seoul to major in art at Seoul National University. He received his bachelor’s degree in the College of Fine Arts and master’s degree in the Department of Fine Art of the Graduate School of the same university. The door to his lifetime career as a painter opened there. But, as an art student, he was not satisfied with paintings only. He realized the preciousness and necessity to learn Western philosophy, Oriental ideas, and live knowledge around the world. As a result of his hard and earnest self-disciplinary training, he began to think much wider and deeper. Influenced by his thought, his paintings in college expressed as a language of fine art that carries superficial messages to the world, while containing abstract and symbolic interpretations and skills. The tendency is well represented in his painting of those days, to include, “Dialectic (1975),” “Albert Camus (1975),” “Improvisation (1976)”, “Sea and Bird (1977)”, Flowers and Weapon (1977)”, Diabolique (1977)”, “Kite (1978)”, and “Empty Space (1979).” It was time for a series of unrestricted, diverse and quantitative experimentation that widely showed various possibilities of Kang.

After graduating from college, he taught as a fine art teacher for six years in Changmun Girls’ High School in Seoul. Despite the desperate condition at that time, he came up with a number of novel ideas for alternative teaching methods of fine art. He did not hesitate to put them into action. He opened participation in the school’s annual fine art festival for all students and teachers. Participation in the festival had been only the fine art cohort students until he opened it to all students. He also arranged the event of making a banner picture by class as a team. The students hung their finished teamwork in the school. The motion picture production is another one. Students participated in the whole process, from scenario writing, to acting, slide editing, and to the final showing of the moving picture to all students in the school. Sometimes, he told the students to draw on the ground by spraying water from a kettle. Then, he told the students to make the shape with soil. Another time, students were told to make a three-dimensional artwork by gathering mirrors together. There is so much more. It will be not easy to explain all of his brilliant ideas as he worked with his students here.

Based on his field experience as a fine art teacher, he identified and analyzed the problems of fine art education in school, and suggested practical alternatives to the existing methods of fine art education.

In 1985, he contributed articles to the periodicals: ‘An Analysis of the Contents in Fine Art High School Textbook,’ for ‘Gyoyukhyeonjang (At the Spot of Education)’ and ‘Problems of Fine Art Textbook for 1st and 2nd Graders of Elementary School’ for ‘Hakweon (Private Educational Institute).’ They were republished in his compilation, “Wandering.” There, he explains the details of a new interpretation of fine art, progressive methods of fine art education, and the current status of fine art education in Korea, and suggests solutions and directions for the future of fine art education in Korea.   

Kang had never purchased a sheet of canvas for more than ten years since he graduated from college until he painted “Goliath Came Down from the Crane (1990).” He used wallpaper rolls because they were cheaper. He cut the wallpaper to a size that he needed. He painted using a pen, brush, ink stick, and poster colors. Of course, he could not paint oil paintings because he could not afford to buy the materials. He had no choice. He wanted to have maximum efficiency at minimum cost. Ironically, now, his paintings from that period are recognized as art that has a contemporary characteristic. His style led to a critique that he paints without authoritarianism, maybe, it is because of the perception that the orthodox is boring. The use of easily accessible media and materials even frees the content of paintings from any restrictions. In the end, his choice out of necessity made it possible to have the form and the content concord, providing a base to paint as freely as he wants following his heart. His thought that ‘survival’ is a lot more powerful, intense, bald and naked than ‘life,’ came from his experiences in dealing with adversities. That is why his once mystical and incantatory tendency like a black hole moves towards a concrete and realistic concept of ‘social consciousness for survival.’ For instance, he wrote the two Chinese characters, meaning life(生) and death(死) in his painting, “Survival (1980).” It is one of his earlier paintings that express his intention straightforwardly. It is a portrayal of a deep impression that Kang received from more than 100 slides of Buddhist paintings from the Goryeo Dynasty, shown by Yun, Beom-Mo, who was one of the founding members of “Reality and Utterance.” Kang, accommodating the traditional elements of altar portrait of Buddha, made the painting in a form of hanging picture. Kang contrasts the real society to Oriental ideas in his other representative hanging paintings, such as, “Taegeukdo (1981),” “Butterfly (1981),” and “Flower (1981).”

The 1980s was a time of change and turbulence in the Korean society. Kang Yo-Bae also wandered going through all sorts of thoughts. After experiencing such a chaotic time, painting became the field of life itself where the memories of history and places are reflected and uttered. As a decade member of a Minjung (people’s) art group, <Reality and Utterance>, he broke away from the conservative and avant-garde path and actively joined the movement for the restoration of fine art, in the aspects of what reality is and how we should voice our thoughts. It was a well-expected response for a young artist who acquired a broad literary foundation as a college student and who sees reality with a substantive approach. In his paintings from this period, the rich and complex feelings or social relationships are intensively integrated into the very concrete and lively depiction of characters’ features. “Great Community (1983),” “Mr. Yu (1983)”, “Guard (1984),” “Dear Daughter (1984), and Oratory (1984) are the paintings from this period. They are portrayed in a form of either character picture or paper printing or illustrations using various materials. What is more interesting is that they seem to be displayed careless on the wall. It does not look like the formal display of paintings in a museum. In fact, they remind one of a hanging picture or wall poster or shaman drawing. It has become a practical trend of art that carries the legacy of Minjung (people’s) fine art. We can see that Kang has taken a leading role to establish figurative languages of critical realism, founded on history and reality.

In the same period of time, Kang drew a variety of illustrations for a publishing company. In 1988, he drew the illustrations inserted in Hyun, Ki-Young’s novel, “An Island in the Wind,” serialized in HanGyeoRe Newspaper. Kang’s illustrations are more than just ancillary drawings, which usually function to draw imagination from the limit of literary description, to amplify the meanings. His illustrations showed a potential to stand as an independent genre. During the one year period as an illustrator, he had an opportunity to meet the history of Jeju and look into his own life and history before the 1990s.

Kang, Yo-Bae confined himself in a decaying farmhouse for three years from 1989 until 1992 to prepare and paint his serial paintings on the theme of the Jeju April 3rd Incident. Since the first exhibition, “Camellias Fall – Jeju People’s Uprising,” in 1992, he held two more in 1998 and 2008 with his serial paintings. The serials were also published in the picture book, “Camellias Fall – Jeju April 3rd Incident Drawn by Kang, Yo-Bae.” It is a source book that shows the scenes of the Jeju April 3rd uprising. He portrayed Jeju people’s strife and horrible civilian massacre in the forms of illustration drawing and acrylic painting. He felt heavily burdened because he knew he had to draw his best because they are historical pictures. The burden was far beyond the usual pondering about the pictorial composition or dramatic portrayal of imagery. Thus, he had to overcome such burdens solely by himself.

It would have been not easy for anyone to do what he had done in those years. Kang’s series of jobs done through years had reverberations that shook fine art circles in Korea. Consequently, the dynamics of young artists and social interest has led to various activities to include, the foundation of the ‘Tamna Fine Art Artist Association,’ and ‘The April 3rd Fine Art Festival.’ Meanwhile, Kang’s exhibition themed on the Jeju April 3rd Incident continues until today. Nevertheless, he wants to see more exhibitions and activities related to the Jeju April 3rd Incident by others, and he expects such activities to surpass what he has done. It is because he believes that both the contents and the scale of the April 3rd related activities should be expanded more than what we have today. It shall be the responsibility of young artists who will respond to Kang’s wishes, with corresponding efforts and results.

Kang does not stop here. He suggests the true meanings and the directing point of our future actions saying, “The end of the Jeju April 3rd Incident is reconciliation. It is certainly not the hatred or retaliation or a sought for ideological victory or defeat. That is why the investigation to find truth is more important than anything else. Forgiveness comes after finding truth. And, true reconciliation can be reached only through forgiveness. There should be no victims from unfair treatment in this world. Time is pressing. We need to redress the grievance of the grudged souls of the dead. Even for the reunification of Korea, we need to clear the inside first.”  

In 1992, he packed up more than twenty years of his life in Seoul and returned to Jeju, where he was born and raised. It was his forties. Awed by the magnificent nature of Jeju, he had the exhibition, “Nature of Jeju,” in 1994. He wrote his impressions of the time.

When the west winds blow far from the sea on the North of the island, the sea rises from slumber rolling its large waves. Forced by the strong winds, the sea turns upside down and exhales white foam to show its scraped and fretted heart from the rocks under the sea. The steep rocks on the seashore move disturb the rough currents.

A hackberry tree, frayed from bitter and cold winds, survives only with its dark and bare branches. The wind swept through the clouds strikes down the wilderness. Vines, entangling the rocks and stones, scratch and tear the wind with their thorny legs, to fight back… A grandmother of Jeju Island has tilled the soil through her whole life, on this island of adversities, using her whole body. She has become the soil itself. When she is gone, who is going to stroke this land?

“Soil (1992)” is one of the paintings in the “Nature of Jeju” exhibition. He portrayed a mother who is plowing the barren soil mindlessly. We can see the exuding feelings from Kang’s affectionate glance and humble mind towards the work of the wind, the landscape of Jeju, and hardships of life.

At a glance, one might think that he used a different style to portray ‘nature.’ He replies saying, “Look at the paintings in “Camellia Falls,” after erasing the people characters. Now, only the backgrounds remain. If so, nature as the background is not just a simple landscape. It becomes paintings where history and time are nested.” Nature to Kang is not an object that he took for his painting. He only borrows it. It is the physical exercise and tuning of the mind. Nature revives in his painting as a ‘landscape of the mind’ portraying Kang’s own imagery. He does not use perspective in his paintings. That is why nature in his paintings does not appear as tranquil and pastoral scenery. Kang sees nature as the field of life and a historic site. That is how he can put more than the landscape itself in his paintings. We can see that in his paintings, such as, “Relieved from Drought (1992),” “Mung Bean Flower (1994),” “The Sky of Mongyang, Lyuh Woon-hyung (1995),” “Jar (2002),” “Hoe (2003)”, “Mountain of Water and Fire (2010),” and “Wave and Rock Columns (2011).”

The life on Jeju Island gave him a lot of opportunities. He drew and painted history, nature, the wind and stone, and flowers on this island. Meeting nature as it is, ‘Kang Yo-Bae’s Nature’ erupted. Longing for new times might have been an opportunity to burn his passion. But, on the other hand, he might have needed a time for solitude to empty all. In August, 1998, he had an opportunity to visit Mt. Geumgangsan and cultural heritage sites around Pyongyang in North Korea. It became a timely opportunity useful in various aspects for Kang.  

Kang sees Jeju as the center of the universe. His eyes were wide open when he saw an indigenous species of bellflower (Hanabusaya asiatica Nakai) that is known to grow only in Mt. Geumgangsan. He was so delighted to see the familiar flower, feeling a sense of kinship there. He expresses his overwhelming emotions and earnest wish for the reunification of Korea, saying, “At the end of the deep and winding mountain path, the secret valley of Naegeumgang was waiting. The white rocks and the pea-green stream were glowing under the sun. There, in the valley of purity, the native species of bellflower was in bloom. This is the only place where that flower grows. It blossomed at the center of the universe. The essence flowered in the deep valley of Mt. Geumgangsan as if the spirit of our race has blossomed at the center of Mt. Geumgangsan.”

The time and space since he returned to Jeju has led his thoughts be more deepened and broadened, and even matured. He vents his thoughts in countless words, such as the wind, wave, flower, a dead tree, hackberry tree, crow, sound, dance, grazing, permeating, survival, human beings, time, space, history, and diachrony and so on. He ceaselessly portrays the thoughts in a number of paintings to include, “Waterfall (2007),” “Green Persimmon (2008),” “Thunder, Wind, and Tree (2010),” “Aged Wilderness (2011),” “Wild Pear Tree (2013),” “Rising Sun (2015),” “Billows (2015),” “Cloud Reaching to the Sky (2015),” “Flow (2015),” and “A Walk on the Green (2015).”

He says that if one wants to see the ‘soil,’ one has to approach geologically after studying the land from its formation, because it is the essential process to look at the inner part of nature. Also, the ‘wind’ is the same. It is moving through the spaces and blows in time. The universe, history, trees, and the disposition of Jeju people are all the same. As such, he expands the meaning of the wind diachronically. The final conclusion of such a view eventuates in ‘creation (or formation).’ All things and matters are not fixed. They are created or formed anew and thus, unify, renew, and create new things newly. As he explained, a ‘hackberry tree’ is reborn in his painting, “The Wind Blowing through Time.”

“Motion is not necessary to become coessential with the world. Trees stand still but the wind passes by them. Trees live because of the wind. Like the hackberry tree, trees leave their bodies to go with the wind. They then observe the fine changes on their bodies that the wind caused, motionlessly. The wind visits them as a friend. Soon, the trees become a coessential body with the wind. All the hackberry tree is interested is the resonance of coexistence in which both the wind and tree can pervade each other,” he said. He reads the heartbeats of history and shouting of life from the hackberry tree. Concurrently, he goes through the process of unifying himself with nature. It shows that nature works as energy to awaken the preciousness of life that live in nature and the land of Jeju, to go beyond the confrontational and defiant relationships between and among different subjects. The title of this exhibition, “The Wind Blowing through Time,” is thus selected, to convey such an intention of the artist.

It is essential to have a proper understanding about what is his perspective and attitude towards the flow of his thought, time and space, and people and nature, if one wants to know who he is. Kang has always put emphasis on integration and harmony through his active participation in social issues while living on Jeju. Life and art are in congruence in Kang’s life. Silently but resolutely, he practices the lifestyle. It is never easy to attain the state of “an all-pervading truth (一以貫之),” as Confucian taught. In that sense, his lifestyle surely deserves a commendation.

The calling of artists is to portray the times and life, ideology and philosophy, and people and nature of her or his time. The diversity of figurative languages and philosophical contemplation in Kang’s paintings are very Korean. They are also very suggestive on how we look at and deal with our traditions. Korean fine art circles have grown unprecedentedly in the history of Korean fine art, with the increasing number of artists and fine art lovers, lots of art creation, activities, and exhibitions, experimental minds, diversification and variations, popularity in commercial markets, and international exchanges. On the contrary, it is also true that the growth of fine art has also left much to be desired in various aspects, such as contracting tradition, inundation of indiscriminately imported foreign art, lack of ideological and philosophical discipline in artists, and irrationality of fine art education.

Kang Yo-Bae responds to the points that artists should figure out what, why, and how they are going to portray by constantly questing and answering on their own on, and carry them into action. Kang also strives constantly asking himself to find a solution. Hence, he also does not settle in a point of the present time because he sees himself as a ‘wind.’ Regression is the most fearful thing in the world. One should examine oneself stringently to avoid falling into the trap of regression. That is why Kang casually exercises a strict self-examination whenever he is alone.  

“When I see a painting that I think it is not bad, the feelings are deeper. Something that frees me is right there. Eventually, painting is mining the abyss of the mind. I consider that art is a process of answering by oneself to the question, ‘Who am I?’ You don’t have to have a thought that you will contribute to the society. You need to find out who you are by yourself. I think that it is enough if you can live up to the person whom you have identified. It is difficult. But if you want to know who you are, you have to know what you are attracted. To me, that is the history of my home island and the wind in time. Now, look at things with the eyes of your mind. Then, you can feel them.” In his talk, we can see his humble attitude towards art.  

If we travel back in time and follow the work of an artist, we can meet the artist’s world of art that is placed in the flow of time. The way of art is the same as how people live. I hope that this exhibition becomes a venue to convey the deepest love of Kang, Yo-Bae for the landscape of Jeju, its ever-changing and free scenery, and the lives nested there. I also hope that this becomes an opportunity for us to communicate, empathize, and share with each other.

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